“Hiero” by Xenophon

The Sword of Damocles
The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall, Ackland Art Museum

Confessions of a Despot

I assure you that despots are worse off than private citizens in the matter of pleasure and delights.

First take marriage. It is commonly held that a marriage into a family of greater wealth and influence is most honourable, and is a source of pride and pleasure to the bridegroom. Next to that comes a marriage with equals. A marriage with inferiors is considered positively degrading and useless. Now unless a despot marries a foreign girl, he is bound to marry beneath him; and so the thing to be desired does not come his way. And whereas it is exceedingly pleasant to receive the attentions of the proudest of ladies, the attentions of slaves are quite unappreciated when shown, and any little shortcomings produce grievous outbursts of anger and annoyance. We all know that passion increases the sweets of sex beyond measure. Passion, however, is very shy of entering the heart of a despot, for passion is fain to desire not the easy prize, but the hoped-for joy. Just as a man who is a stranger to thirst can get no satisfaction out of drinking, so he who is a stranger to passion is a stranger to the sweetest pleasures of sex.

To take advantage of a favourite against his will seems to me more like brigandage than love. Nay, your brigand finds some pleasure in his gain and in hurting his foe; but to feel pleasure in hurting one whom you love, to be hated for your affection, to disgust her by your touch, surely that is a mortifying experience and pitiful! The fact is, a private citizen has instant proof that any act of compliance on the part of his beloved is prompted by affection, since he knows that the service rendered is due to no compulsion; but the despot can never feel sure that he is loved. For we know that acts of service prompted by fear copy as closely as possible the ministrations of affection. Indeed, even plots against despots as often as not are the work of those who profess the deepest affection for them.

Turn next to companionship. The firmest friendships are supposed to be those that unite parents to children, children to parents, wives to husbands, comrades to comrades. Private citizens are loved most deeply by these. But what of despots? Many have slain their own children; many have themselves been murdered by their children; many brothers, partners in despotism, have perished by each other’s hand; many have been destroyed even by their own wives, aye, and by comrades whom they accounted their closest friends. Seeing, then, that they are so hated by those who are bound by natural ties and constrained by custom to love them most, how are we to suppose that they are loved by any other being?

What companionship is pleasant without mutual trust? What intercourse between husband and wife is delightful without confidence? Now of this confidence in others despots enjoy the smallest share. They go in constant suspicion even of their meat and drink; they bid their servitors taste them first, before the libation is offered to the gods, because of their misgiving that they may sup poison in the dish or the bowl. Again, to all other men their fatherland is very precious. For citizens ward one another without pay from their slaves and from evildoers, to the end that none of the citizens may perish by a violent death. But for despots the position is the reverse in this case too. Instead of avenging them, the cities heap honours on the slayer of the despot; and, whereas they exclude the murderers of private persons from the temples, the cities, so far from treating assassins in the same manner, actually put up statues of them in the holy places.

Poverty is rarer among private citizens than among despots. For much and little are to be measured not by number, but in relation to the owner’s needs; so that what is more than enough is much, and what is less than enough is little. The despot with his abundance of wealth has less to meet his necessary expenses than the private citizen. For while private citizens can cut down the daily expenditure as they please, despots cannot, since the largest items in their expenses and the most essential are the sums they spend on the life-guards, and to curtail any of these means ruin. Besides, when men can have all they need by honest means, why pity them as though they were poor? May not those who through want of money are driven to evil and unseemly expedients in order to live, more justly be accounted wretched and poverty-stricken? Now, despots are not seldom forced into the crime of robbing temples and their fellow men through chronic want of cash to meet their necessary expenses. Living, as it were, in a perpetual state of war, they are forced to maintain an army, or they perish.

They recognize a stout-hearted, a wise or an upright man as easily as private citizens do. But instead of admiring such men, they fear them,—the brave lest they strike a bold stroke for freedom, the wise lest they hatch a plot, the upright lest the people desire them for leaders. When they get rid of such men through fear, who are left for their use, save only the unrighteous, the vicious and the servile,—the unrighteous being trusted because, like the despots, they fear that the cities may some day shake off the yoke and prove their masters, the vicious on account of the licence they enjoy as things are, the servile because even they themselves have no desire for freedom?

I am cut off from those who had pleasure in me, since slaves instead of friends are my comrades; I am cut off from my pleasant intercourse with them, since I see in them no sign of good-will towards me. Drink and sleep I avoid as a snare. To fear a crowd, and yet fear solitude, to fear to go unguarded, and yet fear the very men who guard you, to recoil from attendants unarmed and yet dislike to see them armed—surely that is a cruel predicament! And then, to trust foreigners more than citizens, strangers more than Greeks, to long to keep free men slaves, and yet be forced to make slaves free—do you not think that all these are sure tokens of a soul that is crushed with fear? Fear, you know, is not only painful in itself by reason of its presence in the soul, but by haunting us even in our pleasures it spoils them utterly.

The Distinguishing Mark of a True Man

All living creatures alike take pleasure in meats and drinks, in sleep and sexual joys. Only the love of honour is implanted neither in unreasoning brutes nor universally in man. But they in whose hearts the passion for honour and fair fame has fallen like a seed, these unmistakably are separated most widely from the brutes. These may claim to be called men, not human beings merely.



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